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Daily Reads: Richard Hell on HBO’s ‘Vinyl,’ Pop Culture’s Problem With Black Women and Weaves, and More

Daily Reads: Richard Hell on HBO's 'Vinyl,' Pop Culture's Problem With Black Women and Weaves, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Richard Hell on “Vinyl.”
Punk innovator and guitarist for the Neon Boys and Television, Richard Hell is a legendary rock ‘n’ roll figure who in recent years has committed himself to writing, publishing several books. Terence Winter’s new series “Vinyl” covers a New York record label in the early 1970’s as it struggles to progress with the changing tide of music, a topic Hell knows quite a bit about. In fact, a major character in the series is loosely based on Hell. For Stereogum, Hell reviews the first episode of “Vinyl” and finds it boring, inaccurate, and mediocre.

I don’t want to be too hard on “Vinyl.” I thought it was boring, I thought it was innocuous trash, but I may not be objective. A major selling point of the show is its setting in the 1970s New York music scene, wherein were born punk and hip-hop and much of disco. Fascination with down and dirty, crazed, but semi-glamorous, ’70s New York has been durable. I was a part of the punk emergence back then, and the main character in one of the many subplots of the series is partly based on me. That had a lot to do with my getting invited to write this review, and agreeing to. But the show isn’t really about music, it’s about business, and business as understood by Martin Scorsese…As we know, Martin Scorsese is cynical about business, or organized crime, or the police force or whatever you want to call it. Also about everything except maybe the glory of movies. I respect and admire Scorsese, but I get tired of his relentless framing of life as nothing but competition among men for power — represented by money, willingness to betray and kill, cocaine, and pussy. Something like that. Granted, it’s a valid perspective, and a good pretext for entertainment, and God knows the music industry is a perfect illustration, but “Vinyl” is sleepwalking. You come to the series looking for music and what do you get? Bulky Italian-American peacocks so crazed by craving for coke that one of them tears the rear-view mirror off his luxury car for a surface to snort from; or two of them excitedly bashing in the head of a vulgar ally before wrapping his corpse in a table cloth and driving it in a car trunk to a dump spot; a prolonged extreme close-up of a fizzingly dynamic cigarette lighter flame against darkness; nonstop soundtrack of rock and roll, soul, funk, blues, punk, and disco pop music. It’s all routine Scorsese shtick, but cheaper. In fact nine tenths of the songs aren’t even the original tracks, but studio imitations. And what’s with the cocaine behavior? I get that coke gives these men the feeling of supremacy they also get from using baseball bats on upstarts and getting blowjobs from showgirls, but it’s just wrong to over and over again show them (usually from above) violently throwing their sweaty heads back grimacing in cross-eyed transport the moment they inhale a flake. Cocaine is not like getting a cattle prod up your butt. Everybody knows that. Cocaine is sweet. A warm smile would suffice.

2. Love Naturally: Black Women, Weaves, and Pop Culture Relationships.
Popular culture tends to circumscribe complex, multi-faceted communities into digestible boxes that make it easier for the larger public to “understand” them, a foolish idea that assumes stupidity is the de facto norm of the people. For Buzzfeed, Hannah Giorgis writes about how pop culture, such as movies like “Something New,” believes black women have to choose between their partner and their hair extensions.

To conflate any woman’s ability to fall in love — or worse yet, to be deserving of it — with her hairstyle is always harmful. Indeed, all women have long been subject to an impossible bodily scrutiny that at once demands we adhere to specific ideals (long hair, feminine presentation, thin bodies with the acceptable curves) and chastises us for working to achieve them. Lots of men profess to prefer the “natural look,” but regularly underestimate the amount of labor that aesthetic might involve. For black women, the stakes of slippery beauty standards are even higher, and the stigma of not achieving impossible ideals is even more layered. Countless song lyrics have derided women with extensions for being “fake” or “not loving themselves.” In the chorus of the recent magnum oafus “Ayo,” human garbage dumps Chris Brown and Tyga brag that “all [their] bitches got real hair.” The song’s music video features mostly non-black women, except for one wig-wearing presumed sex worker, who’s only depicted fellating a police officer. (That both men’s rumored real-life girlfriends do in fact sport extensions is, again, apparently irrelevant.) These unimaginative references and imagery come laced with anti-black sentiment; after all, women of all races get hair extensions, but movies like Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” only focus on (and stigmatize) black women. And yet it is wholly possible to love oneself, to love one’s hair, to love a partner, all while loving the versatility and styling options that weaves can offer. They are fun; flipping your hair takes on a whole new meaning when there’s 22 extra inches to toss around. They protect your own hair from the elements, helping it to grow longer and stay healthy even during adverse weather conditions (looking at you, Polar Vortex). But most important, they are a choice, just like any other. The decisions a black woman makes with her body are hers alone, not necessarily reflective of a man’s influence. And yet pop culture would have us believe otherwise. What could very well be a simple matter of aesthetic preference, in the vein of ombre versus jet-black hair color, or nude versus red nail polish, is instead depicted as a matter of moral fortitude. To have a weave is to aspire toward whiteness, to be fake; to have natural hair is to be “down for the cause.” If black women’s bodies are the stages on which gendered respectability politics are acted out, then weaves are the (sometimes red) curtains.

3. The Dark Side of the Dream Factory: “Hail, Caesar!” and the Coens’ Self-Critical Genre Movies.
The Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” has been out for a couple weeks now, and it’s garnered some positive reviews as well as some mixed ones. But like all other Coen films, “Hail, Caesar!” has its strong proponents. For Brooklyn Mag, Forrest Cardamenis examines “Hail, Caesar!” and how it’s the Coen Brothers distilled.

As is often the case with the Coens, there is gravity to this weightlessness. Almost always inherent to genre revisionism is a love of genre and film itself — “Taxi Driver” and “Chinatown” don’t hit as hard if familiarity with noir isn’t there to (mis)lead the viewer, and “The Wild Bunch” and “Soldier Blue” could not exist if Classical Hollywood hadn’t churned out hundreds of westerns in the preceding decades. In Coen films, like in the first generation of post-Golden Age genre films, the classical past is an under-the-surface, de facto rule of existence and, in some regards and to varying extents, a guarantor of effect. “Hail, Caesar!” allows that subtext to bubble up and play out on the surface. The wide range of genres manifest in the films within “Hail, Caesar!” are in this regard a stand-in not only for old Hollywood, lovingly framed and affectionately dwelled upon, but for the Coens’ work itself, their ongoing project of pastiche. But underneath this love is an awareness of the values inherent in these films and of the capitalistic machine that churns them out to indoctrinate or anesthetize their audience. Just as New Hollywood directors and their successors, aware of the often racist, sexist, or idealistic messages of genre films, flipped these latent messages on their head, so do “Hail, Caesar!’s” blacklisted screenwriters-turned-kidnappers, who give a speech denouncing the ideals inherent in the capitalist Hollywood system. In this regard, the film’s closest analogue for the Coens are in some ways its villains. Whitlock gets an earful and more for parroting back the communist viewpoint to Mannix, but that isn’t to say such ideas are dismissed. When it’s time to give the rousing, Oscar-sealing speech — and what better indicates status quo values than the Oscars the Coens recently dismissed as “not very important”? — in the name of the Good Lord, the moment goes from convincing to unsuccessful when Whitlock forgets the word “faith.” The entire thing is revealed to be a calculated message. The moment recalls an early scene in the film, when Mannix tells a room full of priests and rabbis that it’s really the movies people attain their values from. The Coens may leave it to the film’s “villains” to criticize that idea, but their filmography shows agreement — and Whitlock, awakened to this reality, can’t quite sell viewers on faith, in Jesus or Hollywood.

4. The Best and Worst of Ben Stiller, A to Z.
“Zoolander 2” is now in theaters and, as many may have expected, it has received some fairly negative reviews for its lazy humor and relying too heavily on the good will from the first film. Rolling Stone’s David Ehrlich examines the best and worst of Ben Stiller, from A to Z.

B for “The Ben Stiller Show”: A hilarious alt-comedy hodgepodge that introduced the world to Andy Dick and Janeane Garofolo (in addition to first introducing Bob Odenkirk to David Cross), Stiller’s sketch show died twice before it could live forever. First launched on MTV in 1990 before its brief resurrection on Fox a few years later, it was an unsupervised mess of pop-culture parodies, music videos, and endless “Star Trek” gags. Paving the way for everything from “Mr. Show” to Adult Swim, this cult-TV curiosity announced Stiller as a generous comic talent who’s most comfortable when he’s given total control.

G for “Greenberg”:
 No character has let Stiller mix his flair for raw pathos with his instinct for comedy like the misanthropic title role he played in Noah Baumbach’s acidic seriocomedy. Bitter, on the mend from a nervous breakdown, and totally hot for his brother’s handywoman (Greta Gerwig), Roger Greenberg provided Stiller with the perfect vehicle to go full curmudgeon. If you squint hard enough, you can almost see the man he might have been had the whole “become a rich and famous comedy icon” thing not worked out.

R for “The Royal Tenenbaums”:
 Possibly the most neurotic character that Wes Anderson has ever written (and that’s not a claim that we make lightly), Chas Tenenbaum allowed Stiller to explore the strained anxiety that he would channel — and significantly broaden — for the hyper-earnest klutzes he later played in rom-coms. A brilliant but paranoid widower who’s best remembered for the red track suits that he forces his kids to wear like a uniform, the part smothered Stiller’s comedic energy beneath a dry varnish of depression. Ironically, it paved the way for the brightest stretch of the actor’s career.

5. “11.22.63” Is a Sprawling, Intoxicating Show.
Hulu’s new original miniseries “11.22.63” premiered its first episode yesterday. Based off the Stephen King novel of the same name, the series follows a time traveler who goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz reviews “11.22.63” and how it’s really about telling and listening to stories.

“11.22.63,” a Hulu production based on Stephen King’s novel, is a sneakily involving mini-series. It makes you wonder why it’s spending so much time on stories other than its main tale of a writer named Jake Epping (James Franco) traveling back in time to try to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but after a while you relax (or should) and accept that it’s pursuing its own peculiar agenda, and it’s not quite what you thought. I went into it with arms folded because I’ve seen lot of time-travel stories and a lot of conspiracy thrillers. But this mini-series is not either of those things, exactly. Pretty soon the real point sinks in. “11.22.63” is mainly about telling stories and listening to stories, and the empathetic transfer that happens when the listener really feels what the speaker is saying, and the danger of the listener wanting not merely to help the speaker by validating his experiences but by directly intervening in his life — a gesture that can lead not to resolution but more complications, or disaster. Although it gets cooking as a thriller eventually, the first three hours are a protracted detour — or feel like one. The pilot starts with an older man named Harry Dunning (Leon Rippy) telling Jake about how his mother and sister were murdered by his father on Halloween night in 1960. We see horrific glimpses of the crime in flashback. Then Jake’s good friend, a diner owner named Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), collapses of cancer-related exhaustion, reveals his disease to Jake, and asks him to take over for him as a time pilgrim, traveling through a portal in a closet of his home and entering 1960. The ultimate goal, says Al, is to somehow prevent the president’s murder three years after that, perhaps by finding out if accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) attempted to kill General Edwin Walker on April 10, 1963, with the same rifle allegedly used on November 22, 1963. There are rules, which Al explains to Jake: You always enter on the same date in 1963, and you have to stay there continuously because if you leave and return to the present, time resets to exactly where it was before you intervened (which means this mini-series’ time-travel scenario is a bit like the plot of the Tom Cruise movie “Edge of Tomorrow”). Al says his concern is making the life of the United States collectively better by stopping JFK’s murder, but he seems like he’s mainly working through his own personal demons. By Al’s “Butterfly Effect” logic, if Kennedy doesn’t die, Johnson doesn’t succeed him, U.S. presence in Vietnam shrinks and disappears rather than escalates, and Al never serves in combat in Vietnam. Jake initially enters the portal out of loyalty to his friend, not because he deeply believes in the scenario that Al is trying to sell him. And then he gets sidetracked. The very qualities that make Jake a good writer and teacher — his ability to really listen to other people and take their emotions personally — makes him a dangerous candidate to travel through time and intervene in history (if indeed there’s such a thing as a good candidate, and there probably isn’t). Jake is an interventionist do-gooder. And as in Holden Caulfield’s description of the dream that gives “The Catcher in the Rye” its title, Jake can’t save everybody — and maybe he shouldn’t be trying to save anybody, because the universe prefers linear time and abhors do-overs. “If you do something that fucks with the past, the past fucks with you,” Al warns him.

6. Timeless Horror: The 25th Anniversary of “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” entered theaters 25 years ago and not long after swept the five major awards at the Academy Awards. RogerEbert.com’s Susan Wloszczyna examines the timeless horror of “The Silence of the Lambs” through the Oscars it won.

How many Best Picture winners set in what was the present day actually feel timeless? Many feel stuck in the year they were released, including “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Rain Man.” There are cultural references, clothing and hair cues and issues at hand — child custody battles, autism — that are viewed in a different light these days. Not that it ruins the experience of viewing them again, but somehow they feel more like time capsules. But having re-watched “Lambs” again recently, it feels remarkably ageless and fresh. That is partly because it exists in its own universe, where the most notable cultural signposts relate to classical architecture and music. The clothing styles and haircuts reveal little. Even Bon Appetit magazine, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the perfume L’Air du Temps are still in existence. Of course, of greater importance is that even if you know what awaits in the next scene — that Clarice will happen upon a man’s severed head smeared with makeup in the back seat of a 1931 Packard while searching a dark storage shed (a precursor perhaps to “Storage Wars”), Lecter will pull a fast one when he escapes from his temporary Baltimore holding pen, Buffalo Bill will don those unsettling night vision goggles in his dungeon-like basement — it still gets under your skin and makes you uneasy. And while women’s rights advocates such as Betty Friedan took exception to the lurid premise of female victims being skinned alive (based on the real-life crimes of Ed Gein, who also was an inspiration for “Psycho”), a closer viewing will reveal it is probably one of the most feminist-forward-thinking horror movies ever made. Clarice is constantly confronted by men who either leer at her, dismiss her or underestimate her abilities. Even her FBI mentor, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), is using her as bait to get information about the killer. About the only male who doesn’t act this way is Lecter. In the end, both she and Brooke Smith’s feisty captive Catherine Martin manage to foil Buffalo Bill and rescue themselves.

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